A flaw of dialog in “The Fugitive”

You ever love a movie and yet see a glaring error in a scene, be it a gaffe by an actor, dialog failure, or something physically taking place in a scene that marks it as a blunder from one degree to another? I’ve got that hounding me right now with a movie I’ve always held in high regard. It’s a lick that’s had more flaws popping up when I think about it – but that’s opinion on my part and evident mostly due to watching the movie too many times and being exposed to it too much in pop culture or by chance on cable.

And, really, this flaw I note is just opinion. It’s dialog in a passing scene of the 1993 hit, “The Fugitive”.

There are warts in direction I could spend time on but that’s not what I’m venting about… Well, not in multiple instances at least. This one is straight dialog in a stolid (if not dramatic) scene as Deputy Marshall Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) investigates third-party meddling by fugitive Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) at a Chicago hospital.

The scene involves Julianne Moore in basically her fifth major-film role. Moore was playing ER doctor Dr. Anne Eastman who governed a wildly active floor.  Kimble, in disguise as a janitor while doing his own personal investigation to find those involved in the murder of his wife (for which he was wrongly convicted of), gets called into play by Eastman to move an ailing ER child patient (“Joel”, played by Joel Robinson) to an observation area. Like a doctor is going to ignore a patient? Especially when x-rays and other medical reports are with the kid and showing the wounds?

“Dude, we know the scene. Where are you going with this?”

Yeah, yeah, I should get to the point, right? It’s not the interaction between Kimble and Eastman that make me turn up my nose (Eastman confronts a fleeing Kimble when she discovers the patient is not where she assigned him – oh, no, he’s in the operating room, having his failing life saved by a veteran of the medical industry). It’s really two lines of dialog between Samuel Gerard and Eastman that make me decry failure:

Gerard: “How’s the boy doin’?”

Eastman: “He saved his life.”

Insert facepalm here.

“What the bloody hell, man? What’s the problem? The kid survived! Kimble’s good-guy status got further hammered home! The failure’s yours here for writing this cra—“

Oh, shut up. Hear me out: Gerard’s question was aimed at how Joel is doing. Joel is the subject of the question. Eastman’s response turns the question into all about Kimble’s – excuse me, “Resmondo Jose Ruiz’s” — intentions. That’s the flaw.

See, it’s not a flaw for Eastman’s character to do that it’s a profound statement to say the guy hunted by the US Marshall’s office single-handedly saved the life of a random patient. Perhaps that’s the intention of “he saved his life” to begin with? Was the exhausted medical staffer trying to show the quirk with the fugitive that pushed Gerard to take a different perspective? Those questions are derived from knowing the movie full well, right and good. It doesn’t change the fact I think the wording is a mess-up here.

All Dr. Eastman had to say was a little verbose to have the same profound effect. Gerard asks the status of the boy and Eastman replies, “His life was saved by a man on the run.” If not that, something simple that puts the character-in-question (Joel) as the focal point and praises the suspect (Kimble) at the same time, which the flawed response does in reverse (Joel is a side item, Kimble is the focal point).

This begs the question if Gerard’s question is what was flawed or not? Did he ask while thinking of Doctor Richard Kimble (said with a snivel) as the antagonistic target, as he had from the beginning of things? If he only expected malicious deeds (or suspected as such) from Kimble, rewording the question to a different four words, or perhaps a five-word accusation would have fit the bill:

  • “What’s the boy’s status?”
  • “Did he hurt the boy?”

The former fits better with a different response from Eastman (like what I suggested) while the latter fits perfectly with the existing response, “He saved his life.”

While I’m quite aware of one integral scene (Kimble/Gerard in the dam at the start of the movie) has a very memorable ad-lib (“I don’t care”), how many other ad-libs or on-the-spot dialog variations were done is… Well, it’s likely large. In wanting to further what I was saying here about that one scene and dialog piece, I looked up the listed script for the film and variation plays out over and over again; one thing written, another thing said/filmed in its place. Really, this opens up the question of last minute re-writes too, or how many edits were made of the script that even got Warner Brothers moving with making this movie.

There have got to be more than a few classic films that have moments like this, where one remark comes off like fingers-across-the-chalk-board not because they’re inappropriate but because they conflict with the dialog of the scene. It doesn’t stop an overall film or story; it just seems like a ding on an impressive automobile.

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